When social networking websites change their layouts, it can feel like someone blundering into your living room, redecorating (badly), leaving the building and refusing to respond to pleas that they come back and sort out the mess. Time and technology don't stand still, of course, and websites understandably need to develop, but the reaction from users to any change tends to be furiously indignant. Such was the case a fortnight ago when Facebook made alterations; millions expressed their displeasure for various reasons – but one change in particular had a genuinely insensitive side effect.
To drive traffic to the site, Facebook now flags up a friend of yours in the sidebar who hasn't logged into their account for a while, urging you to poke them, write on their wall, suggest new friends, or some other cyber-prod which triggers an email to them and hopefully prompts them to come back. Now, there are countless reasons why people might not bother logging in to Facebook – steering clear of computers at evenings and weekends, forgetting passwords, resenting the way friendship has been turned into copper-bottomed online marketing opportunity – but one of them, sadly, is death. The dead, robbed of internet access, tend to shun social networking, thus becoming prime candidates for appearing in your sidebar. And few things are as blunderingly inappropriate as a website suggesting that you poke someone who's been dead for nine months in an attempt to cheer them up.
To its credit, this was one complaint that Facebook addressed swiftly, by reminding users of the opportunity – available since the Virginia Tech shootings – to request that a page to be turned into an online memorial, keeping it visible to friends of the deceased but removing them from the cut-and-thrust of Facebook life. To create one, visit bit.ly/fb-memorial, and provide a name, date of birth, email address and the link to some kind of proof – an obituary or news item – that they're no longer around. Of course, attempts to buck the system began immediately; one Simon Thulbourn became "memorialised" when his friend provided Facebook with a link to an obituary that mentioned someone with a similar name who wasn't even dead. Mr Thulbourn has now been reawakened – the first Facebook zombie – while Facebook has, one hopes, tightened up its procedures a little. The memorials seem rather fitting (more so than mawkish websites specifically set up to provide such a service) but it does seem a shame that not even death provides final release from the clutches of Facebook.
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